For the Reckord | Ellis gives stand-up lessons
If everything goes as planned by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), last month's workshop on stand-up comedy will begin bearing fruit in January when the JCDC parish auditions for its speech competition begin.
Held at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre on Hope Road, the workshop saw Owen 'Blakka' Ellis, one of Jamaica's best-known comedians, sharing his knowledge and skills with a group of teachers and performers. The former were there for information to pass on to their students entering the competition; the latter were there for self-development.
Starting off by saying he placed great value on education and training, Ellis then quoted the maxim "Tell me, I'll forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I'll understand."
He launched into a very interactive workshop. Over several hours, participants were continually told to create skits (individually or in groups) to relate their own humorous experiences, and towards the end, ask questions. In addition to giving tips on writing and performing jokes, Ellis told lots of them to illustrate his points.
He gave these general tips:
a) Decide on the topics you want to joke about, preferably focusing on your own interests and experience.
b) Be able to laugh at yourself.
c) Your performance begins the minute you go on the stage.
d) Start your routine with a quick one-liner to show that you're funny.
Ellis said a female comic he brought to Jamaica from Canada flopped because she spent the first five minutes on stage being awed about being in Jamaica, instead of focusing on performing.
Jokes with surprise endings (or 'twists') go over well, he said, and gave this one-liner: "Mary had a little lamb ... and the doctor fainted."
One man's skit with a twist was about a haughty, well-dressed woman entering a posh restaurant and asking for a bulla and butter. The joke led Ellis to point out that in Barbados, 'bulla' refers to a homosexual, so it was important to know the culture of one's audience. He added that he doesn't usually give gay jokes, but likes this one: "I have many gay friends and some of them are funny."
"There's a big argument about whether you should make jokes about tragic events," Ellis said, adding that the answer depends
on how much time has passed. He said he wouldn't tell a joke about the recent murder of a schoolboy on a bus, but since the "X6 murder trial" is over, the following joke is okay:
"A passenger in taxi asks the driver why he's driving so fast and continually looking in the rear view mirror. The driver replies, 'There's an X6 behind me'. "
Cautioning that comedians need to keep control of their gig and never yield power to their audience, Ellis told of being in a show in Trinidad where a woman kept heckling him. He asked her "Lady, how much would you charge to haunt a house?" The audience laughed at her, and from then she kept quiet.
Ellis stressed the importance of timing, advising the audience not to rush their jokes but to allow time for laughter at one joke before giving the next one. With proper timing even corny jokes can amuse, he said, confessing "I have told corny jokes and people laugh."
Ellis closed his presentation by addressing problems comedians might have with audiences. He said a performer must know his or her limitations. So because he is short and lisps he would not try to play a suave, debonair character that Eddie Murphy would find easy.
He added, "I'm not funny all the time. I'm funny in performance. My children don't find me funny and I have a hard time making my wife laugh."
A musical introduction could help to get an audience warmed up, Ellis said, but a routine might not work simply because of the show it is a part of. Dressed in ordinary clothes he was out of place in a particular burlesque show in Trinidad where the other acts featured men in drag, he said.
Ellis was introduced by Andrew Brodber, the JCDC's specialist in speech and arts development and training, as more than just a comedian. Also a writer, actor, educator and poet, Ellis lives and works between Canada and Jamaica and has been involved for more than three decades in theatre, film, television, teaching and writing. A former student of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts' School of Drama, he has a Master's degree in Environmental Studies from York University, Toronto.